Avoid Shooting Button Bucks

Is that a doe or a button buck in your crosshairs? Here’s some help from Dr. Karl Miller and biologist Kent Kammermeyer in making the decision to pull the trigger on the doe or pass up the young buck.

Daryl Kirby | October 1, 2003

Itʼs a button-head dilemma. You have your crosshairs locked in on an antlerless deer, but is it a doe or a button buck?

Most deer hunters would like to pass up button bucks — if they could just tell for sure which deer was and which deer wasnʼt.

There are some characteristics that will help you identify a fawn from a mature doe and then — sometimes — a button buck from a doe fawn.

WRD biologist Kent Kammermeyer said that the first thing to look for in identifying a fawn (assuming that it is out of spots) is a short-nosed, fuzzy-looking head.

“A fawn has a short, snub-nosed face, while a mature doe has a long, extended nose,” he said.

“Then look at the body and decide if it is a blocky, squared-looking body, which is usually a fawn, or the more elongated body of a mature deer,” said Kent.

One point of reference that works in the field is to imagine a box on the side of a deer that follows the deerʼs back, then down its legs to its feet. If that box is square, you are likely looking at a young deer.

If the box is a rectangle, with the distance down the back longer than the length of the legs, the deer is likely a mature deer.

If you have several deer in a field and a long time to look, you have a better chance of sorting out who is who. The catch is that deer often donʼt always appear in groups that allow for leisurely cross-referencing body shapes, but how the deer is traveling can be an indication of its gender, too.

According to deer biologist and deer hunter Dr. Karl Miller at the University of Georgia, there are behavioral clues to watch for.

“If you are hunting over a green field, donʼt shoot the first deer that comes out,” he said. “That is invariably going to be a little button buck.

“Picture an 8-year-old at the grocery store with mama. Which one is going to be the first one down the aisle? The young one is always going to be the one busting out first getting into stuff. If you see deer come out into a green field, just be patient and wait.

“Watch the first deer, and see if it looks back from where it came in. They will be looking for mama.”

With several deer in a field, comparison of size, at least early in the season, is a good indicator of whether you are looking at a doe or fawn.

And there are other things to watch for, said Karl.

“Watch for the behavior of a doe. She will sometimes strike out (kick) at other deer or even at her own fawn to discipline it.”

Once you have decided that you are looking at a fawn, the buttons on the head are the obvious indication that the deer is a buck — but they can be awfully hard to see, even with binoculars, and especially from the side or at a long distance.

Another more difficult detail to discern that is a clue to the difference between button bucks and doe fawns is the contour of the top of their head.

“If you see a fawn straight on, the top of a button head will be fairly flat between its ears,” said Kent. “The top of a doe fawnʼs head will be more rounded.”

No matter how diligent you are in avoiding button bucks, you are not likely to succeed 100 percent of the time.

“I am here to tell you that itʼs not always easy,” said Kent. “I have made the mistake myself. I shot one two years ago across a field at about 160 or 170 yards. Three deer were feeding and one was bigger than the other two. I said, okay, thatʼs a doe and two fawns, and I shot. But when I went over there, it was a button. I donʼt know what the others were, they may have been fawns, too. The one I shot was bigger, so I shot a trophy button head.”

Karl has had the same experience. “Later in the season, the size comparison can be misleading,” he said. “Mama may be dead, and the button buck may be with its sister or with another button buck. The button bucks are putting on weight and can get up to pretty good size. People will see two antlerless deer come out and shoot the biggest one, and itʼs the button buck with its smaller sister.

“I have done it myself, and I thought I knew what I was shooting at. I had four antlerless deer come under me. It was a doe, a yearling doe, and two fawns. I knew what I was looking at, so I shot the yearling doe, not realizing that the doe had triplets. The bigger one of the triplets was a button buck.”

On WMA either-sex hunts, where there is little concern by most hunters about shooting buttons, approximately 20 percent of the antlerless harvest is button bucks.

On a hunting club where hunters have been educated and are actively trying to avoid shooting button bucks, you should be able to reduce that number by half, said Kent.

It boils down to this: if bagging a button is a big concern, and you arenʼt absolutely sure, donʼt shoot.

But donʼt get carried away.

The concern over shooting button bucks can be over-emphasized, said Kent.

“If the concern over shooting a button buck outweighs the concern for the total number of does you are going to take from your property, then it gets in the way and itʼs hurting, not helping. When someone on a club is slapped with a $100 fine for shooting a button when you arenʼt shooting enough does, thatʼs hurting your program.

“You donʼt want to be trigger-happy,” he said. “But on the other hand if someone makes a mistake, you donʼt need to be too hard on them.”

Karl concurs. “I have seen clubs where they fine you $50 for the first button, and then it is progressive. Itʼs $100 for the next one and the next time it is $200. By that time, no one is going to pull the trigger on anything.

“The best thing to do is to take your antlerless deer early in the season,” said Karl. “Being better able to notice the size difference is just one of the reasons to take antlerless deer early. Why wait until December? Why wait and let them eat all that good vegetation? Why not get them off the property and let it be consumed by deer you are going to leave out there?”

The Mississippi State University Extension Service has published a picture-book guide called, “A Hunterʼs Guide to Aging and Judging Live Whitetail Deer in the Southeast.”

Here is a summary of the keys the guide offers to reduce your odds of shooting a button buck:

• Donʼt shoot antlerless deer that are traveling alone.

• Late in the season, “orphaned” twin fawns often travel together. Your odds are 50/50 that one will be a button, and that one will usually be the bigger deer.

• A doe-fawnʼs head is usually more rounded; a button buckʼs head is more flattened because of the pedicles atop the skull that will develop into antlers.

• Playful, curious, naive deer are more likely to be fawns.

• Donʼt shoot antlerless deer with short snouts.

• A mature doe will often show signs of “wear and tear” such as short-looking ears, a sway back, or a sagging belly.

• A fawnʼs body will be squared, while the doeʼs body is more rectangular-shaped.

“You need to consider avoiding button bucks,” said Karl. “Itʼs important but not critical. A button buck that is in your freezer isnʼt going to grow into a 1 1/2-year-old, and then a 2 1/2-year old buck. It is more critical that you make sure you are getting your deer numbers right. Itʼs better to lose one or two button bucks and get your harvest right than to not shoot any button bucks and not get your doe harvest.”

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